Sam’s Club CEO McLay talks about leadership, moving from Woolworths to Walmart

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 13,778 views 

Sam’s Club CEO Kathryn McLay said too often women executives don’t understand their value. In the June 18 interview with Doug Waller, chief revenue officer of InContext Solutions, McLay shared insights about her career as a woman leading a more than $58 billion business.

The interview was conducted virtually as part of the Women’s Empowerment Summit, an annual event held by the Northwest Arkansas chapter.

McLay was promoted to CEO of Sam’s Club in November replacing John Furner who was named Walmart U.S. CEO after the departure of Greg Foran. McLay, 45, has spent almost her entire career in retail most of which was for Australian retail giant Woolworths, before joining Walmart in April 2015. She said during the interview the training at Woolworths – the same company where Foran had worked prior to moving to Walmart – helped set the stage for recent promotions at Walmart.

“I must have been about 25 years old and a senior leader at Woolworths asked me where I saw myself going with the company. I told him I wanted to become head of audit, which was an ambitious goal at the time, but he helped to shepherd me in that direction and became an ally for me,” McLay said. “I didn’t plan that conversation, but I did capitalize on it.”

McLay rose through the ranks at Woolworths in the auditing department which she said laid the groundwork for understanding a profit and losses ledger. She said the work as an auditor was anything but glamorous and for five to 10 years she trolled through ledgers and balance sheets which helped pave the way to her career acceleration at Walmart.

When asked what advice McLay would tell herself as a young executive if she could go back in time, she would tell herself to hang in there and do the work required. McLay recalled a time when she began to wonder if her potential was lost in the eyes of management after a shift in upper management. As a determined and goal-oriented young executive, McLay said she heaped a set of expectations on herself and worked hard to accomplish those goals.

Much to her surprise, her new bosses didn’t seem to notice. It wasn’t until she spoke with another female leader she realized the contract between herself and the employer required she do a job and there was no guarantee of praise or promotion, as those were elements she had for herself. McLay said once she stopped seeking approval for her accomplishments and began focusing on doing the best job she could for the company, her career began to take off.

Sam’s Club CEO Kathryn McLay

She also said too often women with potential don’t have the confidence to speak up or seek seats at the table unless they are invited. That’s when she began looking for opportunities to mentor and sponsor other females wanting to build careers in retail.

“I have been fortunate to have several outstanding sponsors/mentors in my career, male and female and it’s important to seek out mentors and then also find opportunities to repay others with the service,” she said.

McLay said she has been the only female in meetings at times and looking for other women to elevate became important. When she joined Walmart in April 2015, she assumed the role of vice president of U.S. finance and strategy.

“I interviewed with Walmart and I liked the company culture and what it stood for. But, at the time I was a senior executive at Woolworths which was about the size of Sam’s Club. I took a pay cut and a title demotion to make the move to the U.S.,” she said.

McLay said when she moved with her husband and three pre-teen kids to Bentonville it was the best career move of her life, but it was a gamble given she was leaving her long-time company and her country behind.

“My family has flourished in Bentonville,” she added.

Within seven months, McLay was promoted to senior vice president of supply chain for Walmart U.S. In that role, she led the organization to develop an integrated, end-to-end Walmart U.S. supply chain. She also oversaw the import and reverse logistics teams with the responsibility for ensuring product flows throughout international and domestic distribution channels to and from stores.

During McLay’s tenure as head of the supply chain, Walmart initiated the On-Time-In-Full policy with suppliers which has improved on-shelf availability and helped to reduce clutter in stores and backrooms. Then in early 2019, McLay was promoted to president of Walmart Neighborhood Markets, a job she held for less than a year before getting the nod to lead Walmart’s subsidiary in Sam’s Club amid the holiday rush last year.

Sam’s Club reported net sales revenue of $58.8 billion for last year, up $1 billion from the prior year. Comp sales were up 0.7% for the year, impacted negatively from lost tobacco sales. Operating income rose 8% to $1.6 billion.  The fourth quarter of last year Sam’s Club grew sales to $15.3 billion, up 2.6% from the year-ago period. Wall Street analysts agreed McLay inherited a solid company to lead having improved its performance the past couple of years under Furner’s leadership. Membership income rose 2.5% last year.

When asked what soft and hard skills she is still trying hone, McLay said she’s always been a private person and she’s pushing her comfort zone with live question and answer webinars with Sam’s employees. She said the experience has been a learning experience on the importance of transparency.

She also said COVID-19 has her working from home and she’s had to learn to focus on just what she can control. McLay said she spends a lot of time in Zoom meetings.

“It seems like my neighbors like to mow their grass at 10 a.m. and that’s the worst time for me. I can only control what’s in my square and nothing else. The other day I was in a Zoom meeting and my dog came in with a bunny rabbit and there were all kinds of commotion in the room next to me. I am happy to report the bunny was not slaughtered but that’s the kind of chaos on any given day,” she said.